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Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK

Upper toffs: Awfully good show?

Leslie Phillips: Typical toff, now showing at Edinburgh Festival

Whatever "upper toffs" might be, there are apparently too many of them around.

If it was an official government policy, you might imagine it had been a bold statement lifted from the Revolutionary's Handbook.

But as an off-the-cuff comment from the deputy prime minister, it was treated pretty lightheartedly by the newspapers. While one said it was "another Prescott stumble", another said it just threw more light on "the one man class struggle".

[ image: John Prescott: Proud of his roots]
John Prescott: Proud of his roots
For it was Prescott who has veered between thinking of himself as working and middle class, in part leading to an estrangement with his passionately working class father Bert. (See A touch of class in Relevant Stories.)

If Mr Prescott has been confused about his own class, it's understandable. Lines between the classes are not as clear as they once were.

Things have changed - the arcane origins of the world "toff" prove that.

Jonathan Green's estimable Dictionary of Slang says that the word toff is derived from "tuft-hunter", tufts being golden braids on mortar boards by titled undergraduates

Ordinary untitled undergraduates wore plain black tassles, but some aspired to the aristocracy, and hence tried to act like them.

[ image: Hugh Grant - modern image of an Englishman?]
Hugh Grant - modern image of an Englishman?
That society has changed enormously is not in doubt, but that's not to say it has changed beyond all recognition. Writer Kenneth Rose told The Times, for instance, that Tony Blair is a classic example of an "upper toff" because he went to a "grander independent school".

Gradually over the years, most of the factors identified with being a toff have become less conclusive. Being wealthy, holding positions of power, automatically being given social deference, even wearing hand made shoes; all have become less definitive.

But as well as the school you went to, there is one pretty reliable indicator. Time and again class is judged by the way people speak. Whatever class might mean, people know it when they hear it.

Kenneth Rose added: "It's all very well for Blair to slur his consonants and drop his aitches, but that's all put on."

Even Mr Prescott acknowledged it, saying: "Don't make no mistake about it, I'm proud of being working class. I'm not changing my attitude or culturing my voice or even getting my grammar correct."

It's a pattern repeated endlessly in popular culture, not just by the professional toffs like actor Leslie Phillips, currently on stage in Edinburgh.

How about the following line from the much-hyped US novel Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen, when George Mactier assumes a woman is American.

"'Crikey, George!' she had said. 'I'm English!'"

[ image: Sir Alex Ferguson -  knighted, but not a toff]
Sir Alex Ferguson - knighted, but not a toff
Or another representation of modern English toffhood - Hugh Grant. Made famous by his blundering, plummy, dithering character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, he has reprised the effect for the hit film Notting Hill and also Mickey Blue Eyes, released in the UK on Friday.

And meanwhile the man of the moment in the UK media has been Boris Johnson, recently appointed as editor of the Spectator - identified by some newspapers as a bastion of "toffness".

Johnson is the man whose particular vocab includes such gems as "egad", "omigosh", and "Gadzooks". Try getting away with those in a northern accent.

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15 Jul 99 | UK
A touch of class

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